President Bush's national security adviser said al Qaeda operatives have found refuge in Baghdad, and accused Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime of helping Osama bin Laden's followers develop chemical weapons.
Condoleezza Rice's statements, aired Wednesday in a broadcast interview, are the strongest yet alleging contacts between al Qaeda and the Iraqi government. Previously, evidence of the two working together was tenuous, or came from unreliable sources.
She made her accusations as the Bush administration continued to make its case to a skeptical world that Saddam should be removed from power, by force if necessary. They followed accusations from Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that Mr. Bush was playing politics with the debate over war in Iraq.
"There clearly are contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq that can be documented; there clearly is testimony that some of the contacts have been important contacts and that there's a relationship here," Rice said.
She said much of the information was coming from al Qaeda operatives captured since the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings. This included several senior leaders whom the U.S. alleges organized terrorist attacks.
"We clearly know that there were in the past and have been contacts between senior Iraqi officials and members of al Qaeda going back for actually quite a long time," Rice said. "We know too that several of the (al Qaeda) detainees, in particular some high-ranking detainees, have said that Iraq provided some training to al Qaeda in chemical weapons development."
Mr. Bush, speaking with reporters in the Oval Office earlier Wednesday, said he was determined to battle terrorism on two fronts.
Saddam's Iraq and bin Laden's al Qaeda network because "they're both equally as bad, and equally as evil, and equally as destructive."
The widely held view has been that while Saddam and bin Laden both oppose the United States, their motivations are too different for them to work together. Saddam seeks secular power; bin Laden's drive comes from religious motivations and his opposition to the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world.
"No one is trying to make an argument at this point that Saddam Hussein somehow had operational control of what happened on Sept. 11, so we don't want to push this too far, but this is a story that is unfolding, and it is getting clearer, and we're learning more," Rice said.
She suggested that details of the contacts would be released later.
Previously, U.S. intelligence officials have said some al Qaeda members have been detected in Iraq, but that they appeared to simply be crossing the country while fleeing Afghanistan for their native countries on the Arabian peninsula or in North Africa. U.S. intelligence also has received information that some al Qaeda leaders are hiding in Iran, and the U.S. government is looking into reports that al Qaeda operatives are conducting training just over the Iranian border from Afghanistan.
"And there are some al Qaeda personnel who found refuge in Baghdad," Rice said.
Earlier in the day, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made reference to links between Iraq and al Qaeda during a NATO meeting in Warsaw, Poland, but didn't offer details.
Administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Rice's disclosure was significant because it marked the first time that the White House claimed that al Qaeda operated in areas of Iraq controlled by Saddam. It was an effort to counter suggestions that al Qaeda operatives were solely in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq, which he doesn't control. The disclosure is part of an effort to strengthen the case against Saddam, the officials said.
Previously, it's been known that Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic extremist group in northern Iraq, sent about a dozen of its members to bin Laden's camps. The group is largely composed of ethnic Kurds and had experimented with biological weapons, U.S. officials have said. But any links to Saddam's government were tenuous.
Bin Laden has sought chemical, biological and nuclear weapons for a decade, U.S. intelligence officials have said. His followers are believed to have experimented with rudimentary chemical and biological weapons, but they lacked the sophistication to use them in a way that would kill large numbers of people.
Saddam's military used chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s and on rebelling Iraqi Kurds. He also has researched biological and nuclear weapons — previously, the key complaint of the Bush administration against Saddam.
Saddam's government denies having any of these weapons.
After Sept. 11, officials in the Czech Republic said Mohamed Atta, believed to have led the suicide hijacking attacks, had met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague, which some viewed as a link between Iraq and the attacks. But U.S. officials have since said they doubt the meeting took place.
The Iraqi government has been linked to other groups labeled terrorist by the United States, primarily those that oppose Iran and Israel.